The Separation of Church and State

Donald Wildmon: A life spent promoting Christian Nationalism, division and misinformation

  Rob Boston

Last week, the Rev. Donald Wildmon of Tupelo, Miss., died at age 85. The name may not ring a bell, but Wildmon was one of the founders of contemporary Christian Nationalism and, alongside TV preachers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, was an early leader of the U.S. Religious Right.

Disturbed by what he considered to be salacious content on television, Wildmon, a United Methodist minister, founded the National Federation for Decency in 1977. But the rise of cable TV made that issue a non-starter, so Wildmon pivoted. He changed the name of the group to the American Family Association (AFA) in 1988 and enlarged its scope to embrace a familiar Christian Nationalist agenda: attacking LGBTQ+ people, blasting reproductive freedom, assailing public education, promoting the “Christian nation” myth and working to lure conservative pastors into partisan politics.

The AFA was famous for launching boycotts of companies such as Disney and McDonald’s, and while critics debated their effectiveness, the actions garnered the group media attention and donations. The AFA, now run by Wildmon’s son Tim, has an annual budget of $31 million and owns a nationwide chain of nearly 200 radio stations that blast far-right propaganda through its American Family News. AFA is a prominent member of the Shadow Network of organizations working to undermine democracy and church-state separation.

Wildmon’s attacks on separation

In some ways, Wildmon was an innovator. You’ve probably heard about “In God We Trust” signs being posted in public schools and government offices. What you may not know is that Wildmon devised that project in 2001. (The AFA just happened to be selling “In God We Trust” posters at the time – a coincidence, I’m sure.) And the “war on Christmas” myth – Fox News did that, right? Nope. Fox hyped the false “war,” but the AFA conceived it and still promotes those phony claims today.

All over the country, LGBTQ-themed books are being pulled from public schools and libraries. Wildmon was an early adopter of this strategy. In 2001, he endorsed a website run by Kjos Ministries, which attacked the popular Harry Potter books for promoting witchcraft, and he so terrorized the publishing firm of Holt, Rinehart and Winston that it stopped publishing a popular series of readers called “Impressions.” Wildmon claimed the books were full of witchcraft and humanism.

Remember when Target stores came under fire for allowing transgender people to use the bathrooms of their choice? AFA stirred all that up. Same with the failed campaign in 2012 to get J.C. Penney to dump Ellen DeGeneres as a spokeswoman because she’s gay; that was the work of AFA affiliate One Million Moms.

AFA asserted that God put Donald Trump in office and peddled absurd conspiracy theories about rigged voting machines after Trump lost in 2020. The organization urged churches to resist COVID-era restrictions on large gatherings. It ran stories sympathetic to the insurrectionists who were arrested after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.

‘Society that is crumbling before us’

Wildmon never hesitated to employ lurid rhetoric. Speaking at a conference in Florida in 2007, he called America a “society that is crumbling before us, like ancient Rome did” and added that before long, people would be punished for “being Christian.” In 2009, he threw a fit because the newly opened U.S. Capitol Visitors Center, a facility designed to help people understand the history and functions of the American government, didn’t contain enough references to Christianity. Wildmon was convinced that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation – the text of the Constitution notwithstanding – and frequently promoted the work of discredited pseudo-historian David Barton. (The Southern Poverty Law Center has more on the extreme views of Wildmon and the AFA.)

Wildmon had a family, and I’m sure they miss him. My condolences to them. But death is the time when we take the measure of a person and do a kind of summing up. Wildmon’s legacy is one of fomenting hate and division, promoting conspiracy theories, pushing theocracy and spreading lies about America’s founding.

Put simply, that’s not a life well lived.

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